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Stories Before 1850. 0175: William Mackenzie, The New Tom Thumb ... by Margery Meanwell

Author: Mackenzie, William
Title: The New Tom Thumb with an account of his wonderful exploits. As related by Margery Meanwell. Illustrated with descriptive engravings
Cat. Number: 0175
Date: 1822
1st Edition: 1815
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: J. Harris & Son
Price: 1s 6d
Pages: 1 vol., 31pp.
Size: 17.5 x 10.5 cm
Illustrations: 8 plates plus vignettes on outdside front cover, title-page and outside back cover
Note: Attribution to Mackenzie from Moon 1987: 77. Inscription opposite title-page: 'Francis Barrow. Tom Thumb'.

Images of all pages of this book

Page 126 of item 0175

Introductory essay

Marjorie Moon identifies the author of The New Tom Thumb as William Mackenzie, author of The Academy; or a Picture of Youth (1808) and The Rector and His Pupils (1810) (Moon 1987: 77). Indeed, the first, 1814 (or possibly 1815) edition of The New Tom Thumb begins with the words, 'When I wrote the Academy for Youth I promised that I would write a little book for Children, and the life of the NEW TOM THUMB is the result of my promise.' According to a review of The Academy in the Gentleman's Magazine for July 1809, Mackenzie claimed to have been a teacher of some sort. Nothing else is known of him.

Moon calls The New Tom Thumb 'one of the prettiest little books that a child could be given' and commends its 'lively story' and 'charming illustrations' (Moon 1987: 77). The narrative is indeed fast-moving, and the engravings keep pace with it, with a new image for each incident. They are linked into the text with phrases such as 'Observe how he was punished' (p.7). The book assumes that all readers know of the existence of Tom Thumb, the tiny son of regular-sized parents. As soon as the frame-story - Marjery Meanwell's propensity habit of telling stories to the local boys and girls - has been established, the reader is launched straight into an account of Tom's adventures. These result mostly from his highly reprehended mistreatment of animals. When he cuts off the wings of a butterfly, he is punished by being stung by a bee. When he seeks to ride a chicken, he is bullied by a turkey. When he attacks a frisking lamb, he is carried off by an eagle to its eerie (which is what occurs on page 14, missing from the Hockliffe copy of the book). 'Tenderness to animals is the first quality of a child', the narrator insists, adding 'A boy who takes pleasure in tormenting a hen, or even a fly, will not, in future life, possess real humanity.' (p.11)

There are other, secondary morals too. 'It is cruel to insult a poor man!' the narrator breaks in to say at one point, 'if you cannot relieve him, you should at least pity him.' (p.29) Tom does not. He tricks the blind old man into thinking that a serpent is in his path. Only later does he relent, offering to the man the penny he has earned. However, these mischievous tricks, though thoroughly reprobated by the narrator, seem designed to be amusing to the reader. Though we know it is very wrong of Tom to make a hare into his steed, for instance, his adventures during the ride are clearly meant to be enjoyed every bit as much as those of John Gilpin. Certainly the incredulous responses of the country bumpkins who catch sight of the tiny man riding the hare are inserted purely for their entertainment value (see pp.22-23).

The New Tom Thumb is fairly typical of the many books published by John Harris in the decade or so after the appearance of the very successful Butterfly's Ball in 1806 (0835-0836). As Marjorie Moon puts it in her bibliography of John Harris's Books for Youth 1801-1843, 'pretty little square books ... poured out helter-skelter from the presses to supply the demand for a new kind of nursery book - funny, imaginative and altogether different from the pious moralisings that up till now, with a few honourable exceptions, were the literature of childhood' (Moon 1987: 153). Most of these books formed part of Harris's Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction, as does this one. The series' logo appears on the outside back cover, and a list of some of the series' titles is on the inside back cover. See 0196 or 0194 for examples of other Harris's Cabinet books.

Versions of the Tom Thumb story had been in print from the sixteenth century onwards in Britain and elsewhere. More traditional editions are to be found in the Hockliffe Collection at 0044 and 0036. A short book also bearing the name The New Tom Thumb; or, Reading Made Quite Easy, undated (but probably c.1840), completely dispensed with the eponymous hero, merely providing battledore-style alphabets, simple reading exercises, and passages from the scriptures with which to test a child's literacy.

Moon, Marjorie, John Harris's books for youth, 1801-1843, revised edition, Winchester, 1987

Moon, Marjorie, John Harris's books for youth, 1801-1843, revised edition, Winchester, 1987

Moon, Marjorie, John Harris's books for youth, 1801-1843, revised edition, Winchester, 1987

Moon, Marjorie, John Harris's books for youth, 1801-1843, revised edition, Winchester, 1987